Kids eat the darndest things

I’ll be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about kids or what they’re into these days. I don’t really hang out with many and the few that belong to my friends are still babies and toddlers. But I’ll tell you one thing, I learned all sorts of things about Cambodian kiddies in the two weeks I volunteered teaching them English.

One of the things I found most fascinating was the snacks they ate during recess. I’m used to kids at home eating candy and cookies, or if they have health-conscious parents, fruits like apple wedges, grapes and bananas. But not the Cambodian students I had. They ate all manner of unusual snacks and super sugary, brightly colored energy drinks (which for the record, turned the portion of class after recess a wild rumpus room.)

No idea what you call this thing-

No idea what you call this thing.

IMG_6543

Apparently, you pop out the little seed balls and then eat them. Yum?

A few times, the kids ate strange fruits purchased from bicycle vendors and the ramshackle shop across the street. I didn’t know what they were and the kids weren’t much help either in explaining what they were. The couple of times I tried what they were nibbling on, they were bitter or sour, and not anything I could imagine my 8-year-old self eating.

Spicy chili mango strips.

Spicy chili mango strips.

One snack I was able to identify was green mango, a tart version of its sweet, juicy, ripe counterpart. Cut into wedges and strips, my kids dipped it in a salt and chili pepper mix that made them pucker their little faces and fan their mouths from the spiciness. Again, how many little kids do you know that would pack ask for that in their lunch boxes?

Just another break time snack.

Just another break time snack.

One kid made me laugh one day when he pulled out a whole corn on the cob and chomped away at it during break. I feel ya, little guy, I like corn on the cob, too.

Another snack they couldn’t really explain— but I was able to figure out once I got my hands on it— was sweet sticky rice. Adults eat this too, though, and street vendors sell it from little push carts pretty much everywhere. Sometimes it comes wrapped in palm or banana leaves, or in the case of the little girl I saw eating it at school, in bamboo, which then gets peeled back and the rice inside pushed out, kind of like a Push Pop.

Sweet sticky rice

Sweet sticky rice… in Push Pop form

Travel’s great like that, in that it opens your eyes to all the things you don’t know, in this case not just what another group of people eat but what its youngest eaters enjoy as well.

Sibling recommendations: Colombian fast food edition

As someone who spends a large chunk of her time— both at work and outside of it— researching restaurants, reading up on what’s new on the dining scene, and telling people what they should eat and where they should eat it, I really love it when someone else takes over and does the work for me.

During last week’s pre-holidays trip to Miami, my sister took over the reins and suggested Los Verdes, a place in Broward county specializing in Colombian hot dogs and other fast food.

So here’s what I learned: Colombian food, while delicious, gets very few points for being aesthetically pleasing. But I’m ok with that. Sometimes it’s ok for things to be a messy jumble. That’s life, no?

A Colombian hot dog: apparently not for neat, dainty eaters

A Colombian hot dog: apparently not for neat, dainty eaters

Being the hot dog fan (examples 1, 2 and 3) that I am, it only seemed right to try one of the much-hyped (by my sister) Colombian hot dogs. When it came out, I wasn’t quite sure there was a hot dog involved because what was placed before us looked like a splayed out hot dog bun under a small mountain of crushed potato chips and sauce, a round, little quail egg plopped on top. The two sauces, a sweet pink sauce (probably a mayo-ketchup combo) and the sweet pineapple sauce, were no ketchup and mustard but they were good and put a whole new spin on the dog. Biting into this monster, stuff went every and got smeared on everything, but all of it was good. The different textures were fun and the different flavors were interesting when eaten with the buried hot dog. Sure, I probably should’ve worn a poncho to eat this thing, but I enjoyed it all the same.

A mess of a burger

All this mess and I hadn’t even touched it yet.

Next on the tour of wildly messy but tasty Colombian foods was the chicken burger, which was more of a chicken sandwich than a burger (breast not patty) and included more of the same ingredients from the hot dog. The towering “burger” seemed to spill out from underneath its bun, sauces oozing, melted cheese dripping down, lettuce, tomato and bacon jutting out from everywhere, on top of the seeming explosion of crushed potato chips. Again, not exactly date food (at least not first date, if you ask me) but since I was there with family, I might as well have been invisible for all I cared.

Maicito

Maicito, Colombian for mountain of food involving corn… or something like that

Last and probably my favorite of the three, was a Colombian maicito with chicken, basically a bed of loose corn kernels topped with— yup, more of the same— mozzarella, sauces (pink and pineapple), chopped chicken, and the by now ubiquitous crushed potato chips. Ok, so Los Verdes is kind of repetitive with their toppings, but there’s good reason for it: mixed all together into a sloppy, mushy mess, they’re delicious! This plate, with the sweetness of the loose corn, was oh so tasty.

Points to my sister for an interesting, ridiculously filling, messy but delicious recommendation, even if she did leave out the fact that I would need protective gear to eat it.

Murray’s pulls me in again

I have a little problem. I’m physically incapable of ever walking by Murray’s Cheese Shop without going inside. I don’t always buy something, but I always have to at least go inside and take a look, pick stuff up and sniff it, read labels and imagine gorging myself.

Last week, I was walking down Bleecker Street one afternoon on my way home from work, trying to hurry because I had an evening flight to catch to Miami with the boyfriend, when there it was, Murray’s. “Just five minutes,” I thought to myself. “Just a teeny tiny  look to see what’s new.” (Even though I’d just been there the week before.)

Murray's, you got me again. And not even with cheese!

As usual, I saw approximately 500 things I wanted to buy, but with a weekend out of town coming up, I couldn’t really justify most of them… except for one: quicos.

I’d never actually heard of quicos before but when I saw them on the table with the other sweets and chocolates, the description on the bag sucked me right in: “Corn kernels are soaked in water, then roasted or fried to make them super crunchy and addictive. To seal the deal, they’re also coated with chocolate and sprinkled with salt.” SOLD. I sensed potential for an amazing airplane snack.

Murray's quicos, my new favorite snack for airplane rides... or anytime really

A few hours later, while the other JetBlue passengers were munching on their complimentary nut mixes and Terra Blue chips, I pulled out my bag of Murray’s quicos. After just the first one it was decided: these were in fact, absolutely addictive. Both sweet and salty, with a crisp crunch from the bloated, fat little corn kernels, and a buttery chocolate that melts on the tongue almost right away, these were almost impossible to stop eating.

I knew I’d be sad if I finished them all and found myself in Miami without a Murray’s in sight, so I was actually able to save a few. It was enough to hold me over for the weekend, but now that I’m back in the city I’ll have to stock up next time I’m in the neighborhood and drawn by Murray’s magnetic pull once again.

Hola, old friends

Pupusas de chorizo y queso

Last summer while spending a couple of months in San Francisco, I discovered pupusas, a Salvadoran pancake-like corn tortilla stuffed with delicious cheese and meat fillings. I was in love right away and wonderered how I managed to grow up in Miami, a melting pot of every country in the world but especially those of Central and South America, without ever having one. I’m still not sure, but on mylast trip to Miami, I was eager to try them again, especially since I hadn’t had any since my days in California.

Lucky for me, my sister and I seemed to be on the same wavelenght the day she picked up the beau and I from the airport, because she took us to a restaurant in Little Havana called El Atlacatl, specializing in the cuisine of El Salvador.

My sister was all about me trying the tamales there, which I’ll get into in a moment, but when I saw pupusas on the menu, that’s what I wanted. ASAP.

Tamal de gallina

And they didn’t disappoint. Savory in that salty, grainy cornmealy way that I remembered, they were just the right amount of soft and doughy with a flavorful, filling of chorizo and cheese. I don’t know anything about El Salvador but I’ve made up my mind that I’d love to visit. Any country where I could eat pupusas as much as I wanted seems like a damn fine place to me.

So about those tamales… my sister, who shares not only my DNA but my voracious round-the-clock apetite, really nailed it when she suggested them. Unlike pupusas, I’ve eaten tamales my whole life and still eat them in New York. (Thank you Trader Joe’s for your variety of ethnic eats.) But the tamales we had at El Atlacatl were some of the best I can remember. First we had a tamal de gallina, a wonderfully plump, steaming hot tamale stuffed with tender, juicy hen meat, like pulled pork. Every bite was subtly sweet from the corn dough used in the tamales and savory and hearty from the delicious meat inside.

Tamal de elote

But as good as that one was— and let me tell you, it was GOOD— the other tamal was far and away my favorite.  Unlike the hen-stuffed tamal, this one didn’t have a filling of any kind, and was made with a slightly different sweet corn masa, so that it was considerably sweeter than the other one in an earthy, not sugary way. With the tamal came a small serving of tangy, bright sourcream, and really, I can’t think of a more perfect combination of flavors and textures. Perfectly moist and soft with the earthy sweetness of corn, everything that was good about the tamal was made even better with the cool, creamy tang of the sourcream.  

Only thing now is that I’m not sure how I’ll go back to eating the frozen Trader Joe variety…

Arepa appetizer

In all it's round, golden, corn glory: the arepa

I love carnival food but hate carnivals. Street fairs, though, the type that pop up in New York on weekends during the warm weather months, are cool with me. All of the corn-on-the-cob, gyros  and funnel cake I could ask for with none of the roaring rollercoasters, tacky arcade games or screaming children. What’s not to like?

Flaneur and I were recently on our way to get lunch with a friend when we stumbled upon a street fair running along the stretch of Third Avenue near our apartment. I saw a carnival food classic I more closely associate with my Miami upbringing and I had to have it.  I beelined toward the small stand under a banner proclaiming: “Arepas.” Continue reading

Cambodian sandwiches: another fantastic find

Dreams of pursuing a career in journalism are what brought me to New York, but it’s the food that’s keeping me here.

Plenty about this city has disillusioned me and frustrated me since I moved here, but the food? Never. This city’s eats have been my rock. I know that no matter how stressful my job gets, how quickly my paycheck disappears, or how freakishly close my bedroom walls seem to be to each other, I can go anywhere in the city and find something good to eat. And for someone who often seeks comfort in food, that’s a godsend.

Five spiced pork belly with pickled Asian pear

What amazes me about New York is the variety of food it offers and the places to find it. From five star restaurants with celebrity chefs and impossible reservation lists to the dodgy hole-in-the-wall places, there’s always something good. Just this week I ate somewhere that was so great and so unassuming that even though I had been griping all day about random things, everything was cleared from my head and all I could think of was, “God I love this city.” (Someone cue Jay-Z and Alicia Keys.)

My friend Vanessa, a consistent source for fun things in New York, suggested I try a little sandwich shop nearby called Num Pang. Cambodian sandwiches, she said, and I was sold. Though she didn’t come with, I did have my usual sidekick there with me, my adventurous-eater boyfriend.

I ‘d been warned the place was small but I was still surprised by how tiny it was: just a walk-up window, with a spiral staircase leading to a few seats and a stand-up bar. As we finished giving the guy our order, a group of people poured down the stairs, emptying the place out and leaving the whole seating area to just Flaneur and me. (Win.)

Grilled skirt steak with crushed coriander and peppercorn

A few minutes later, when our order was called, Flaneur ran downstairs to get our food. I clapped my hands together and rubbed them in excited preparation. These bad boys looked good.

Now, I’ve always been a little iffy about pork belly but ever since having it at Fatty Crab, I’ve become a fan. When I saw it listed with the specials, I had to have it. Plus, it came with pear, which happens to be my favorite fruit at the moment. The sandwich came on a pretty, mini baguette and was toasted to a nice crispiness so that every bite had that great, satisfying crunch of perfectly toasted bread. Inside, the pork belly was juicy and tender and paired nicely with the sweetness of the pickled pear. To add extra kick to the equation, there was zesty parsley, thin slices of cucumber, and a delicious spicy (but not too spicy) mayonnaise. If ever there was a prize for successfully mixing of colors, tastes and textures, this sandwich would get it.

Flaneur, meanwhile, was working on his sandwich of grilled skirt steak. Served on the same crunchy, warm baguette, his had large chunks of the crushed coriander and peppercorn covered steak jutting out from underneath the bread. More parsley, sliced cucumbers and shredded carrots complemented the meat.

Not your standard corn on the cob...

We finished our sandwiches, enjoying the last bits of it as we picked up stray crumbs and licked spicy mayo off our fingers. The grilled corn on the cob had been recommended so we got one to share. Vanessa had said it was really good but when we unwrapped it, I knew it would be better than expected. A bright yellow corn on the cob except for a few browned kernels from where it had almost been burned was covered in a thick coating of more spicy mayo,  chili powder and coconut flakes. It was loud and intense, both in appearance and taste. The creaminess of the mayo mixed in with the meatiness of the corn and the slight hint of sweetness from the coconut to make for a wildly delicious to our Cambodian dinner.

With Flaneur by my side, I walked home, full and happy, my mouth slightly tingling from all the chili mayo, and thought to myself, “Dammit New York, you won me over, all over again.”